Federal Court Funding

Overview

The federal judiciary requires sufficient funds to perform the core functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress, including adjudicating all cases filed in federal courts; supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release; providing representation for indigent defendants; securing jurors for jury trials; and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities. These are vast responsibilities that generate a workload over which the judiciary has no control. In 2013, over 430,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeals; over 1.1 million petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; over 160,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and representation to indigent defendants was provided under the Criminal Justice Act in over 225,000 criminal cases.  

The Judiciary's Annual Appropriation: Where the Money Goes

Over 70 percent of the judiciary's budget falls into its Salaries and Expenses account, which pays for rent, judicial and court personnel salaries and benefits, and operating and information technology expenses.

Defender Services expenses, which include funding for public defender organizations and compensation for private attorneys representing indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act, account for the next largest percentage of the judiciary's annual budget – approximately 15 percent.

The rest of the judiciary's yearly appropriation primarily pays for court security, juror fees, and operational costs for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), the Federal Judicial Center, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and the Judiciary Retirement Trust Fund. 

The House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Financial Services and General Government have jurisdiction over the federal judiciary's annual appropriation.

FY 2013 Sequestration and FY 2014 Partial Recovery

A summary of the effects of FY 2013 and FY 2014 funding levels on the judiciary is available here.

FY 2015 Request - $6.7 Billion in Discretionary Funding 


President's Budget Request       

The White House, which released its budget on March 4, transmitted the judiciary’s FY 2015 budget request of $6.735 billion in discretionary appropriations without changes, as required by law. The judiciary is proposing a budget that is $219 million − or 3.4 percent − over its FY 2014 funding level. This is not a very large increase, considering that the judiciary has operated with flat funding since 2010, except for FY 2013 when its funding was cut by $350 million as a result of mandatory sequestration.

The requested increase is required to enable the clerks of court, probation and pretrial services offices, and federal defender organizations to continue backfilling vacancies. It also is needed to fund projected workload requirements in defender services, provide for a sufficient level of security at federal court facilities nationwide, and ensure sufficient funds for juror costs associated with criminal and civil jury trials.

A breakdown of the budget request by account line is available here.

Congressional Activity

Spending Limit Set. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 established the top-line discretionary spending limit for the federal government for FY 2015 at an amount that is only $2 billion higher than this year's, with instructions that it is to be split equally between defense and non-defense spending. The small increase in discretionary spending dollars limits the ability of Congress to provide any part of the government − including the judiciary — with significantly increased funding for FY 2015.

It was hoped that setting the top-line spending limit prior to the start of the FY 2015 appropriations process would set a new tone this session and expedite consideration of the 12 annual appropriations bills, but that failed to materialize; the process fell victim to election-year politics and a continuing resolution once again was necessary to keep the government funded after October 1.

House Appropriations. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government held a series of hearings in the spring. Judge Julia Gibbons, Chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget, testified in support of the proposed budget before the Subcommittee on March 26.

H.R. 5016, the House Financial Services and General Government FY 2015 appropriations bill, was approved by the full committee and passed by the House in July. It provides $6.7 billion in discretionary spending for the judiciary, 2.5% more than the current level, but 1% less than requested.

Senate Appropriations. The counterpart Senate bill, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government and released only in draft, is very similar to the House version. It apportions the money slightly differently and provides approximately $162 million more in overall funding. The full committee did not consider the bill.

Unlike the House, which passed seven of the 12 annual appropriations bills, the Senate failed to act on any of them. Election-year politics took its toll in the Senate, where debate on a three-in-one spending package became embroiled in a partisan dispute over amendments in June. Furthermore, the crisis of unaccompanied children and the implications for immigration policy, which lawmakers had hoped to put on the back burner in order to pass fiscal 2015 spending bills, dominated the Senate’s appropriations debate and derailed the process.

Continuing Resolution.  Both chambers abandoned further work on individual appropriation bills after the August recess. Instead, eager to sidestep any threat of a government shutdown on October 1, appropriators turned their attention to crafting a short continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded until after the elections.

In mid-September, the House and Senate passed HJ Res 124, a stop-gap measure to provide FY 2015 funding for the government from October 1 through December 11 at 2014 levels.

If Congress passes an omnibus appropriations bill for FY 2015, it is likely that the judiciary will receive funding in the amount approved by the House in July, which would be 2.5 percent more than its current funding but one percent less than it had requested and was proposed into the Senate draft bill. While this level of funding would be acceptable under current fiscal constraints, it is not a very large increase, considering that the judiciary has operated with flat funding or worse since 2010. (In FY 2013, the Judiciary’s budget was cut by $350 million due to sequestration. While the $350 million was restored in 2014, the budget returned to its previously flat state.) If Congress decides to fund the government through a long-term continuing resolution, funding will remain flat. Republican control of the Senate is not likely to alter the outcome for FY 2015, but its effect on subsequent years is less clear since the Budget Control Act of 2011 continues to lower spending caps through 2021. Even though Republicans have demonstrated a strong commitment to fully funding the judiciary, their fiscal goals and spending priorities may threaten adequate funding for the courts. The ABA will continue to urge Congress to protect the judiciary from further deficit reduction. 

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